Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Prelude to a Top Ten: Mommy, what's a platformer? revisited

at 2:55 PM
Even if it is one of the oldest genres in gaming, platformer is still not acknowledged as a word by spell-check. That's what I'm here to talk about today. What is a platformer? Well, not really, because that's kind of boring. But since I'm going to be listing my ten favorites, I better establish a definition and some criteria so you can figure out what I'm talking about. A lot of the Cracked.coms and the GameFAQss of the world simply start counting off the numbers with little more introduction than "welcome to my Top Ten [if you're the fifth caller or any caller at all]".

A platformer is a game in which the primary novel interactive element is platforming. That is to say, the game engages the player by evolving and varying its platforming. Your first reaction to that ought to be "you used the word 'platforming' a whole lot of times in defining 'platformer'". That's because it's important to establish the game type beyond the play type. Many games contain platforming but are not platformers. Take for example Metroid or Contra. They're both full of jumping about, yet it's a constant; Metroid progresses via exploration and Contra through more threatening enemies.
Few would argue that Sting is a platformer
Yes, jumping about. Our heroes simply can't get enough of it, as their heroes before them, as Shakespeare before them. The A button has become nearly synonymous with "jump". Yet somehow, not all platformers depend on or even include this frog-like tendency. Platforming can't be defined as jumping, because that's a terrible description, plus it would exclude Bionic Commando, VVVVV, and H.E.R.O. It's more primal than that. Platforming is play which challenges the player to navigate an avatar in opposition of omnipresent forces. The omnipresentest of these forces are familiar to us from the physical world: gravity, inertia, and friction. The character is dragged toward the bottom of the screen, has a tendency to continue moving when initiated, and can't move through objects. Others are tossed in from time to time: wind, rain, and the like.

If you're not getting it, maybe you're a musical learner, or a kinesthetic. Try singing the last paragraph or shaking your monitor up and down, as it may suit your developmental disability. If you're a "by examples" learner, allow me to show you two games. One is a platformer and other is not. If you can, I recommend you go play these games to see exactly what I mean, because videos aren't the best control demos. On the left you have Gradius. Notice that in Gradius, when the player uses the control pad to move Vic Viper, it moves exactly in the direction you press, for the duration that you press it. Then it stops. No external forces are moving it, and navigation is not inherently a challenge. On the right is our old friend and loved one, Sonic the Hedgehog. Notice that Sonic falls from the sky, slides down hills, and generally does all kinds of stuff, even when the player drops the controller. Sonic is a platformer/hedgehog.
Note that, while I've been focusing on 2D examples here, just about everything I've said applies in 3D land as well. Also keep in mind that plenty of games do not cleanly fall into one category or another. While Sonic, Mario, and Pitfall are obviously platformers, what about Mega Man, Kid Icarus, or Pitfall 2? These games rotate between play-styles and develop their platforming alongside other major play elements. Nothing to fear though! A little genre-mixing never stopped Elton John!

That ought to be enough to chew on for now, I'll be back later today or tomorrow with today's Ten Top Boppers.

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